A Brief and Incomplete History of the Swimsuit
When you squeeze into your Speedo, you’re not just baring your skin—you’re celebrating centuries of technological breakthroughs.
3RD CENTURY CE
Sicilian mosaics depict women wearing bikini-like outfits to exercise, but all Roman swimming is done in the nude.
Women hit the beach in long formless smocks that hide their shapes. Some women sew lead weights in their hems to make sure the fabric doesn’t rise and offer a scandalous glimpse of their calves.
English waters ban men from swimming in the buff, giving rise to the striped knit bathing costume.
Ladies begin splashing around in baggy flannel pants over loose flannel dresses.
The first recorded “bathing beauty” pageant is held in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Thomas Edison is a judge!
Australian synchronized swimmer Annette Kellerman appears in Boston wearing a saucy formfitting one-piece suit with a high neck, knee-length shorts, and short sleeves. She is promptly arrested for indecent exposure. Kellerman counters, “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” A judge agrees that she needs a suit that offers “unrestricted movement when swimming.”
Australian Fanny Durack wears just such an unrestricted suit while breaking the 100-meter world record and winning the first ever gold in women’s Olympic swimming. The fashionable Durack goes on to become the female Michael Phelps of her day; at one point, she held the women’s world record in every event from the 100 meters to the mile.
The first edition of what will become the Miss America Pageant takes place in Atlantic City. Since illustrators are thought to have inside knowledge of the human form, Norman Rockwell judges the swimsuit competition in the 1920s.
French auto engineer and fashion designer Louis Reard crafts a revealing new two-piece suit he dubs the “bikini” after Bikini Atoll, site of many nuclear tests. When no models will agree to wear his creation for its debut, Reard is forced to hire an exotic dancer from a Paris casino. The dancer, Micheline Bernardini, briefly becomes as famous as the swimsuit and receives 50,000 pieces of fan mail.
Speedo debuts its infamous tiny racing trunks while sponsoring the Australian swim team at the Melbourne Olympics. Powered by their skimpy suits, the Aussie men take five of six swimming golds.
Brigitte Bardot popularizes the bikini during the Cannes Film Festival, but it takes a few years for the craze to catch on. In the U.S., Modern Girl magazine dismisses the trend, writing, “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”
Sports Illustrated debuts its swimsuit issue. Adolescent boys’ interest in long-form sports journalism suddenly spikes.
Jodie Foster makes her acting debut as the Coppertone baby.
The first written instance of “skinny dipping” makes a surprisingly late entry into the English language.
Bangalore, India, hosts the Miss World pageant, but local outrage forces the swimsuit competition to be held in the Seychelles instead.
The Miss America Pageant changes its swimsuit rules to ban string bikinis and thongs.
Sick of seeing half-naked tourists, Barcelona bans bikinis on streets that aren’t adjacent to the beach. Violators face a 300-euro fine.
All images courtesy of Getty Images.